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Read Time: 22 mins

In today’s tutorial, we will demonstrate how to successfully create this epic scene in Photoshop. This piece involved the use of several stock images and is loaded with useful tips and tricks. It took several days to complete, so let’s stop fooling around and get started!

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial.

Step 1

Before you start creating this piece. Open the dancer image in a new document and cut him out using Layer Mask. Test this dancer on 1-2 different backgrounds to see if you did a good job with the extraction.

Go to Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlights and adjust the values for Shadows only - Amount 50%, Tonal Width 33%. These are the values I picked for that particular picture; depending on your own picture they will be different. Just keep in mind to make the picture brighter and lighten the shaded areas (but don't overdo it).

Now take a look at the 3rd image below. Go to the Layers Palette and add a new adjustment layer - Curves. Drag the slider to the top left (like you see in the 1st Curves dialog box of 3rd image below). Then go to Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All. This will hide the Curves content. While you still have Curves layer selected, right click on it and select Create Clipping Mask. This will stick the layer to our dancer layer allowing us to paint only in the areas of the dancer. Name this layer "Highlights". Next, add another Curves adjustment layer, and referring to the one we just made, create same one but with the difference of slider going to the right bottom. Also remember to create clipping mask for it. Name this layer "Shadows".

In the 4th image below I indicated spots where you need to paint. But before you do it, grab the Brush Tool, set your Hardness to 0% and Flow to around 5%. Pick white color; select "Shadows" layer mask and paint in the red spots indicated in 4th image below. There are of course more of these spots, I just pointed some of them. You need to enhance the shade areas. Then switch to "Highlights" layer mask and do the same with the highlight spots (showed with green line).

Step 2

Now go to the Layers Palette again and create a new adjustment layer above all - Selective Color. Set the values as you see them below. The goal is to make this person look more fantasy. That's why we need to play around with tonal variety. When you're done, right click on this layer and select Create Clipping Mask.

Next create Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and desaturate it a little bit. You should get similar result to mine in the 2nd image below.

Step 3

Now we can start working on our project. I'm recommending you to work on a canvas of 1100x1700px, this will lower your expenses of buying large pictures, and for tutorial purposes I think it's enough for you to learn something cool. For your own projects I recommend to use bigger canvases like the size of A4 / A3.

Drag our dancer to the main project document (incase you don’t know what to do with all these clipping mask I will give you a small hint - disable the background layer to get your dancer on transparent background, then hit Command/Ctrl + Shift + C (Copy Merged), go to the main project document and hit Command/Ctrl + V to paste, this will paste our cut dancer with all these adjustments applied).

OK, let's finally take care of the 1st image below. Pick a dark blue color (showed in the image) and create a background out of it. Then open paper texture, drag it to our project and change it's Blending Mode to Overlay. Next go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation and adjust it how you feel it looks best.

Step 4

Open the landscape image. First step is to do a small shadow/highlights correction. So as previously run Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights and move only Shadows - the Amount slider. Remember not to overdo it; I'd give it something like 30-50% max.

Next, create a Layer Mask of this landscape, grab a black brush, set it to very soft and remove the sky from landscape. You can leave a little bit of the sun and rays this will help us to better merge the further pictures. Then if you feel that this landscape needs a little bit more adjusting go to Image > Adjustments > Selective Color and correct Yellows and Greens.

Step 5

Now open the picture of the night sky and place it behind the dancer and landscape. Our landscape and this night sky should now nicely blend in, if they aren't looking like in the first image below, you need to play around with masking. Next, get rid of the night sky picture edges; use also Layer Mask to do this (2nd image below).

Now, create new layer above the night sky, grab a very soft brush and paint with grey blue (#70788) above the sun to make a smooth transition into the dark (3rd image below).

Get back to the night sky layer and go to Image > Adjusments > Selective Color, then make a small color correction (4th image below).

Next take a look at the following images below and follow them by creating new layers, changing their blending modes and filling the images with different tones. In the 5th image below - you need to create new layer above, change its Blending Mode to Overlay and using soft brush paint with #f1f8ff around the sun. In the 6th image below - repeat same thing, create new layer and this time change Blending Mode to Normal, and use white color. In the 7th image below - repeat the process using information from the picture. In the 8th image below - repeat the process using information from the picture, the places where I’ve written info in the picture, indicates spots where you need to paint

Step 6

When you're done with colorizing the sky bring up paper texture into our project. Hit Command/Ctrl + I to Invert. Then change Layer Blending Mode of this texture to Linear Dodge. Next use Levels to take away most of the material, this will leave us some nice small paper dots. When you receive too much texture, just erase it (look at left side of the 3rd image below). Now that we have these dots, we need to duplicate this layer using Command/Ctrl + J, this will enhance the effect (to make it look better you can apply Gaussian Blur of 1-3px to this duplicate). Next create new layer above, change it's Blending Mode to Overlay, then grab white color and use very soft Brush Tool to paint around these dots - this should create a glow illusion.

Step 7

Now please don't be confused with the first image below, looks messy, as you need to drop the landscape picture into our project again. And this needs to be placed only behind the dancer. Name this layer "rocks" and make it little less shaded and more readable by adding a touch of Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlights.

Next, look at the 3rd image below. Select the Pen Tool and draw a path around frontal rocks. Use Command/Ctrl + Shift + I to inverse selection and hit Delete on keyboard. Next add some adjustment layers as you see them in 4th image below (Image > Adjustments > Selective Color, Image > Adjustments > Color Balance).

Step 8

OK, now we must adjust the rocks to fit our illustration’s needs. So create new layer above the rocks, right click on it and select Create Clipping Mask. And now again following first two images below, grab a brush with #f4e4cd color and paint where in indicated spots.

Then repeat the process, and create another layer with Clipping Mask, change its Blending Mode to Overlay and use the same color to paint in the same spots (3rd image below).

Now refer to 1 step in this tutorial and use the same technique of adding more light to this rocks. Look at the 4th image below and add Curves Adjustment Layer (make it a Clipping Mask), delete the standard Layer Mask (which is attached automatically) and go for Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All. Then use soft white brush to paint on the layer mask, in the edges of these rocks (in the same spots as previously).

Then use the same technique while dealing with rocks shading. 5th and 6th images below will guide you.

Step 9

Now we could just add some shading to the dancer, but I'd rather deal with the branches first. Open the first image of decaying tree and start cutting it out. Use Layer Mask to do this. Next remember to test if you did good extraction job. I used two backgrounds to see if it's clean.

Next add some adjustment layers and follow the images below: Image > Adjustmnents > Selective Color. Image > Adjustmnents > Exposure. Image > Adjustmnents > Brightness/Contrast.

Step 10

Open another decaying tree picture and cut it out using Layer Masks again. Then, go to Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights (adjust only Amount and Tonal Width in Shadows). Next add: Image > Adjustmnents > Selective Color. Image > Adjustmnents > Color Balance. Image > Adjustmnents > Hue/Saturation

Remember you need to make all these trees look similar, like they came from the same picture. That's why we need all those adjustments applied.

Step 11

Now let's switch to the hardest part of this tutorial. Please read the guidance below to better understand the process. It's about using colors to manipulate the branches’ shading.

When you're done reading, take a look at the images below and add first dead tree. Rotate it to get the right position and use Layer Mask to get into correct shape. Then I indicated spots with green arrows that need to be shaded. And reverse for the red arrows - highlights. Keep the guidance in mind and strictly stick to the images below.

Step 12

Everything is about proper shading. You need to realize where the light come from and then start adding shadows and lights. In our case use the dancer as a reference. Also we can be sure that most of the branches will remain dark, as the sunlight is just lighting them from behind.

Step 13

We will repeat the same process until we achieve some nice results. Remember to blend those branches with each other nicely. They can't just be flying around, try to connect each one with another. In the first image below I just cut out some disturbing parts of the branches. Then as a reminder, I colorized this branch to show you how to treat shading. Greens stand for shade and reds for highlights.

Step 14

Remember to use different trees. If you build everything with only one kind of branch, this will be noticeable and your piece may lose some quality. So open another tree and place it somewhere between the rest of the branches. If it's necessary cut out some disturbing branches. Follow the same process as previously explained and remember where the light comes from, and where is it heading.

Step 15

Honestly, you will need a lot of experimentation to complete this. But don't give up! Play around with these branches as much as you can. Try to make connections, it all needs to fit. Also remember that the further you put your branches from the rocks, they will have stronger lights. It's because they are getting closer to the sunlight. So repeat the same process and remember all these pointers, as they may be very useful. Also let your own taste be the judge, I hope you will know whether you did a good job or not.

Step 16

Keep adding trees, this needs to look massive. The more branches you add, the more corrections you will be forced to do. Because if you cover one branch with another, the previous one may receive less light, so be aware of that. This is the moment where you need to be very accurate.

Step 17

In these trees I found two great branches that looked very useful. Refer to first image below and try to find the right position for this tree, and those 2 fine branches will play the role of holders. Get rid of the rest of the tree and try to blend it nicely with other branches (2nd image below).

In 3rd image below, green arrows indicate where I added a little bit of shade, as this is the part, which is unreachable by sun light, and of course the dancer covers it.

In 4th image below, red arrows indicate where you need to add highlights. Those branches will certainly be surrounded by light, and it's because they aren't covered by anything. They cross straight with the light.

In 5th image below, I did a small correction to the branches, as I wanted one branch to go between this dancers hands, it's not a necessary step, but I liked it more this way. If you decide to do something like that, keep in mind that you need to darken the this reconstructed place, as it's covered with this man's hand and light doesn't reach this spot.

Step 18

OK, finally we're done; if you did a good job you should get a similar result (1st image below). Now switch back to the "rocks" layer and use the guidance for shading from step 11. Use the same color scheme and look at second image below. I drew where the branches shadow will be dropped and I indicated with the green circle where to start.

Start by creating a new layer above "rocks" layer, stick it to "rocks" using Create Clipping Mask option. Change the layer Blending Mode to Multiply and follow the previous guidance.

When you finish adding shadows, you can darken the whole rocks a little bit using Curves, as this is the darkest place in the whole illustration.

Step 19

Ok, as we're done with branches and rocks now let's make this man fit in. So go to the dancer layer and refer to the Step 1. So go to the Layer Palette and create new adjustment layer - Curves. Delete its Layer Mask and go to Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All, then right click on the layer and select Create Clipping Mask. Now we need to add some shading in indicated spots (1st image below). To do this, use white and paint on Curves Layer Mask (2nd image below).

Also, we can't miss some important details - take a look at the 3rd image below. I showed you where you should add a tiny shadow of the branch (in the next image is result of this). To do this add another layer (stick it to previous one using Clipping Mask), change its Blending Mode to Multiply, then use Eyedropper Tool to sample the light pink color from the t-shirt. When you're done, grab very soft brush and start adding a tiny shadow in top right direction (while setting direction you need to settle where the light is coming from and how does the surface look like).

By now you should be ready to pick colors by yourselves, so I will just give you a hint what to do and you will give it a try. So next step is to create another layer with Clipping Mask. Choose a very light yellow color, and paint with very soft brush in indicated spots (4th image below). We will enhance the parts of dancer, which are strongly hit by light.

The 5th image below is about the same process, but now (if you feel) you can add a layer with Blending Mode set to Color or Soft Light and add some yellowish tone to the top edge of this dancer, this will give even better feeling of him fitting the illustration.

Step 20

Take a look at the brushes I found for this piece. You can use all of them, you can use one of them, it's up to you. The point is to properly mask them.

So bring them to Photoshop and add the first watercolor splat. Use white color to do this. Now what is important, add it with Flow set to 5-10%, this will give it a nice transparent touch. Then, use the Eraser to erase some of the visible edges of the brush. Create new layer and repeat the same process. Make new layer for each brush, also create alot of them. Connect one to another to make the feeling that they are one smooth smoke/dust or whatever you consider it is.

In last image below I added one blue splat with layer Blending Mode set to Overlay and as you see it also blends nicely. So if the brush color is similar to the background you can surely add it, this should do a nice variation for you (it also gives some nice depth to the dust).

Step 21

Now we will be still fogging and dusting this illustration to make everything work better together. So open the image of clouds. Drag it to your project. Change its Blending Mode to Screen, hit Command/Ctrl + Shift + U to desaturate. Then add some Levels to make only the clouds shape pump up (2nd image below). Then spread these clouds all over the illustration, and remember to use a lot of Eraser to blend them nicely.

In the 4th image below I indicated a place that could use not only clouds but also some brushing. So this is something optional, I sampled color from the landscape ground and using soft brush I added a little bit of dullness.

Step 22

Now let's go back again to our dust. Create new layer and change your brush options: Flow 1-5%, Hardness around 40%, and Diameter size of 1-2px. Use white color and paint over the edges of the watercolor brushes (1st image below). Next create another new layer and change its Blending Mode to Overlay. Change your brush options: Flow 2%, Hardness 0% and fit the Diameter to your own needs. Then make a little brushing on these lines you just made.

Next, let's look at 3rd image below. The arrows and their colors indicate spots which I covered with these colors. Simply create two new layers, each ones Blending Mode set to Color and add yellow and pink tone to this dust. Remember just not to add too bright color this will kinda mess up everything.

I also picked a little bit darker pink and using new layer with Blending Mode set to Multiply, I again painted on the dust (4th image below). These steps are also optional, the dust looks good without coloring it, but I like to mess around with it, so this gives a little more variety to me.

Step 23

I hope you still have the trees in their own new documents, so bring one of the trees into our project, but before you do it, use the Eraser or Layer Mask to cut out some branches as you see in the first image below. Then select them with Lasso Tool and drop to the main project document. Rotate them as needed, find a comfortable position for all these branches (you may spread them widely if you want, also they don’t need to be in one layer).

Now again refer to the guidance about shading branches. I will not repeat everything again to save you some time, just try remember what you did before with the clipping masks and colors.

As you can see I chose a pretty big branch and placed it in the center, just where the sun is shining. This basically forces us to add much more lights than with everything else. So create two new layers, make both as Clipping Masks, set the first ones Blending Option to Normal, and the second one (the one above) to Overlay. Again use soft brush and very light yellow color to paint on the edges of this branch. Follow the images below to see what I’m talking about. Just to let you know - in the last image below I just shaped up this branch and used a hard Eraser to cut the bottom of it.

Step 24

There we have another branch piece. This one we will shade in some other way because it looks like it was a little bit in front of our dancer. So again, use a few new layers, all with Clipping Mask (and as you did it with branches previously) using different brown tones shade the front of it and make the edges lightened.

Remember to let your own taste be the judge, if this doesn't look good in your illustration, don't force it, and change the shading. Experiment with it, it's really hard to predict what kind of shading will fit the best.

Step 25

Here the task is way simpler than before, as I placed this branch near dancer's left hand. So if you take a closer look to the illustration you will notice that this piece will be lightened pretty much same way as the dancer. Its top will be very light and bottom very dark. Green arrows indicate shadows, and red ones - lights. To shade it use the same process as previously explained.

Step 26

This may seem hard if you do something like this for the first time, as we're placing all these elements in 3d space, and you kind of have to imagine how they would look in real life. The new branch below is pretty much the same as the one from step 23, although it’s a little different because it's also flying in front of the dancer. So it just can’t be fully loaded with light, the most intensive lightened part in this case will be the left side of course. The right side of the branch should receive only a little bit of light.

Step 27

OK, next thing what we're going do is to add some variation. We can't just have big branches as this won't look good. They also need to create an illusion that the small ones are pushed more to the space.

Grab again the branches you have cut out. Resize them down and place on dust. Then add a Layer Mask to this layer and using soft black brush carefully erase some of their parts into the dust. This will give a nice feeling like they are really in 3d space and also flying in this dust.

Step 28

You can repeat the previous process as many times as you want, but remember not to overload the illustration with the same pieces. To make some difference, let's now add some leaves and dirt or rocks. Use Eraser Tool or Layer Mask to cut some of the elements in the image below. Then drop them in our main project document.

Now take a look at 5th image below. Again you will have follow images and create new layers with different blending modes, then make clipping masks of them and fill them with different color brushing. Stick to the images below, and there is everything shown what you need to do.

Strictly keep in mind to create Clipping Mask to each new layer! They need to stick to the tiny rocks layer. This way we avoid using selections.

Step 29

Add more leaves and rocks, but this time behind the dancer. Try to blend some of them in the dust. If you feel they still don't fit in nicely you can use a soft white brush and paint a little bit of it above the dancer. Check the 4th image below.

Step 30

The variety of the elements that you choose to add is up to you, I can't teach you how many or where to put them. This requires much experimentation. Believe me, only putting elements took me several hours, because I dropped them many times in different places in illustration and it still was not enough good. Then I fixed them over and over again until I found the spots I really like. Also remember to drop different types of elements, if you keep copying the same ones this will be noticeable and may look not good.

Finally, we're heading to the end, and what we lack are final adjustments - something very important. Add them above all layers. I will guide you in steps what I did, in order - starting from images below:

  1. Gradient Map - "Violet, Orange" preset. Blending Mode to Soft Light, Opacity 13%.
  2. Gradient Map - dull blue to dull orange (codes in image). Blending Mode to Screen, Opacity 40%.
  3. Selective Color - Whites, Neutrals, Blacks (values in image).
  4. Color Balance - Shadows, Midtones, Highlights (values in image).
  5. Curves - adjust all channels.
  6. Black and White - (values in image), Blending Mode to Soft Light, Opacity 71%. As the black color was too intensive on the dancer, branches and rocks I decided to remove a little bit of it while painting on Layer Mask.
  7. Selective Color - Reds, Yellows, Whites, Blacks (values in image).
  8. Exposure - (values in image).
  9. Gradient Map - "Black, White" preset. I used it only for the dust, so I masked everything else.

Step 31

Before we finish this piece, I thought of adding last touch to the sun burst. Create a Curves adjustment layer above all. To adjust it, follow images below. These adjustments should give it a nice reddish red/pink touch. And as in previous step remember to apply it to a certain place, in this case sun and some parts of dust.

If you want to enhance you illustration's highlight you can add a tiny, white brush line in the edges where light hits spots. Example is in the 5th image below. This gives a little bit more of a "plastic" touch, which I really like.


I hope you will find some of the tips and tricks useful. Many of them can save you time while working on a project like this. Remember that all you need is patience; such a piece just can't be made in several hours. It takes a lot of time to plan and execute it correctly. Sometimes it takes even weeks before you successfully finish you work.

And a final thought for you - just be creative, don't follow all steps like it was a book to learn, try to feel it.

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